Covid response shows vulnerability of Texas’ part-time legislature

by | May 4, 2020 | Coronavirus, Opinion

As Governor Abbott’s power expands through executive order the legislature sits sidelined while the public safety orders of local officials are being overridden. 

Veteran Capitol insider Scott Braddock reports members of both parties have signaled concerns over the governor’s expression of authority during declared emergencies as Article 1, Sec. 28 of Texas’ state Constitution, which states that, “No power of suspending laws in this State shall be exercised except by the Legislature.”

The vacuum of power, filled by the governor and the lack of an emergency aid package from the state, is the result of conservative leadership and Texas’ part-time legislature which only meets for a few months every other year. The full-time legislatures of other large states like California and New York have already passed emergency legislation in response to COVID-19. In fact, according to the National Council of State Legislatures Texas is only one of 15 states that have not passed COVID-19 legislation. Some of those bills include appropriating relief funds, addressing health insurance, telemedicine services, unemployment benefits, workforce protections, and paid sick leave. 

For the Texas Legislature to pass such a bill, the governor would have to call a “Special Session” and only the items he chose to put on the “call” would be considered. So far that has not happened. That also means legislators can’t tap into the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund during one of the most economically unstable moments in our state’s history. In January 2019, the fund was projected to have a balance of nearly $14 billion by the end of 2020. 

Calling the legislature to consider an emergency bill for financial aid would highlight the state’s structural deficit and contradict the low-tax/low-service brand the GOP has built in the state over the last 30 years. The undermining of local control is another recent political trend born from budget cuts and a backlash against a progressive urban renaissance. 

In the past several years, local jurisdictions have had to get creative to solve their budget and policy challenges while the legislature is not in session or their policy goals do not align. In some cases the current pandemic checks both boxes. In Austin, for example, the City Council just announced it has provided $1.2 million in emergency rent funds to be distributed to approximately 1,000 struggling families through a lottery system hosted by the Housing Authority.

Abbott has made it clear that during a declared disaster, his orders supersede local public safety officials and that he can bypass the legislature to wield extralegal powers. We can’t always know when a crisis will arise but we do know that being prepared and responding is a full-time job. With the executive branch unchecked and local officials working around the clock, the system of balances in the world’s 10th largest economy deserves the full attention of the legislature. It’s the only branch with the constitutional power to make and suspend laws or appropriate funds and the time to act is now.

Joe Deshotel is a Public Affairs professional with over a decade of experience in government and community organizing in Texas. He is the co-founder of the Left in Texas Podcast, one of the first progressive podcasts dedicated to Texas politics. 

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Joe Deshotel is originally from Beaumont, Texas, but a combination of live music, politics, and natural beauty brought him to Austin in 2010. He has over a decade of experience in public policy that covers federal, state, and local government and has worked on a number of successful election campaigns. He continues to consult on Democratic campaigns and serves as the Chair of Austin’s Community Development Commission which advocates for affordable housing and solutions for homelessness.

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